Alphabet CEO Sundar Pichai (left) and Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella. India being the crucible of top-notch management talent – almost a CEO factory – is now a new dimension to India’s soft power.
The appointment of Parag Agrawal as CEO of Twitter Inc. this week, has yet again turned the spotlight on Indian-Americans leading global tech firms. From Microsoft’s Satya Nadella to Alphabet’s Sundar Pichai; from Adobe’s Shantanu Narayen to IBM’s Arvind Krishna; from Micron Technology’s Sanjay Mehrotra to Palo Alto Networks’ Nikesh Arora; from VMWare’s Rangarajan Raghuram to Arista Network’s Jayshree Ullal, the global Indian tech CEO is becoming ubiquitous.
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And this does not even include the many Indians leading global firms in the non-tech space – Ivan Menezes, CEO of Diageo; Vas Narasimhan of Novartis, Sandeep Kataria of Bata, Punit Renjen of Deloitte, Laxman Narasimhan of Reckitt Benckiser, Sonia Syngal of GAP; Mahesh Madhavan of Bacardi Martini and Sameer Suneja of Perfetti Van Melle. With each new appointment the cult of Indian executives running global companies grows, and not just linearly.
Every one of these announcements is accompanied by the usual elation, celebrated with much gusto and the stories of their growing up in a middle-class milieu and their close ties with families back home, their performance in school and college and reactions of batchmates and teachers fill our timelines.
Here’s an attempt to analyse the larger implications of this growing phenomenon.
1. The rise of Indian CEOs of these US headquartered firms is strong reaffirmation of the US’s meritocracy and its truly global outlook – especially when it comes to business. Now just allowing, but enabling the best talent to rise to the very top, irrespective of race, nationality or unfamiliar accents. Also a great reminder of the opportunity America offers to immigrants and the fact that the American Dream of good education, success, wealth and achievement for all, is still alive and a cornerstone of its society.
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2. India being the crucible of top-notch management talent – almost a CEO factory – is now a new dimension to India’s soft power after Bollywood and IT. This multicultural, data driven, tech savvy, ‘Made in India’ CEO trend can only grow, emerging from a maniacally competitive education system and nurtured and developed in a complex resource constrained environment.
While some may lament the brain drain, a more pragmatic view is that this is a sign of Indians building solid reputations for corporate smartness often emerging from the complexities and unpredictability many encounter in their growing years in India. This emerging brand of Indian global leaders, further fuels respect and opportunities for India, Indians and Indian MNCs and start-ups globally.
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Global companies that have been around in India, have for long known this. Hindustan Unilever, the Indian subsidiary of Unilever, has over the years groomed and exported the best Indian talent to run businesses across the world, and in the last decade has had many Indians on its global leadership team.
Banking is another space where Indians have significant global presence in leadership – often attributed to Indians’ sharp minds for numbers. Think Vikram Pandit, Citi’s Global CEO between 2007-12; Anshu Jain who ran Deutsche Bank till a few years ago and Singapore’s DBS Bank CEO Piyush Gupta.
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3. A belated acknowledgement of India’s much criticized but extremely competitive education system. A system sharpened by limited opportunities for quality education; aspirations for a better future and driven by ambitious parents desperate to see their kids excel. Little doubt that the IIT-JEE is among the most competitive examinations in the world, with thousands of students competing for a minuscule number of seats.
In fact, admission into some of India’s best undergraduate colleges is so competitive that it forces many bright students who don’t make the cut, to pursue undergrad studies abroad. It’s widely acknowledged that many US universities need the Indian student influx every fall, to keep them in the black.
4. Every additional appointment is building the cult of India’s tech leadership that is widely acknowledged in Silicon Valley and now increasingly, elsewhere in the world. Indians accounted for around 75% of H1 B visas issued in the US last year. Tech majors Intel, Qualcomm, HP, Cisco, Oracle, Broadcom, Amazon have employed Indians across the organisation and a sizeable number in the upper echelons. Then there’s a multitude of Fortune 500 companies whose tech backends run out of Bengaluru, Chennai and Hyderabad.
India will do well to harness this trend, together with the growing number of tech-based start-ups, many swelling to unicorns ready to take on the world. Indian-origin CEOs on the global stage keep India front and centre of decision makers worldwide, besides of course these CEOs themselves having India high on their business radar. If there ever was a ripe time for India to take the world business centre stage, it is now. Thank you, desi CEO.
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